Messiah

Just back from St David’s Hall, Cardiff, where I’ve been listening to a performance of Handel‘s great oratorio Messiah by the Orchestra, Soloists and Chorus of Welsh National Opera under the baton of Conductor Lothar Koenigs. I haven’t got time to write much (as I’m famished), but I enjoyed the concert so much I wanted to write something before the buzz disappeared.

I don’t mind admitting that Messiah is a piece that’s redolent with nostalgia for me – some of the texts remind me a lot of Sunday School and singing in a church choir when I was little and then, a bit later, listening to the whole thing at Christmas time at the City Hall in Newcastle. I loved it then, and still do now, almost 40 years later. I know it’s possible to take nostalgia too far – nobody can afford to spend too much time living in the past – but I think it’s good to stay in contact with your memories and the things that shaped you when you were young. I haven’t seen Messiah live for a very long time, and tonight was like meeting an old friend after a long absence, and discovering that he’s just like you remembered him all those years ago.

Setting aside the wistful reminiscences it brought to mind, tonight’s performance was in any case exceptional. The Orchestra of WNO was on top form, and Lothar Koenigs directed them with great skill and vision. The tempo might have been a bit brisk in places for some tastes – or so I was told in the bar at the interval – but I thought the pace was excellent. Soprano Laura Mitchell and tenor Robin Tritschler both sang with crystal clarity, and bass baritone Darren Jeffrey was in fine voice too. Mezzo Patricia Bardon seemed to struggle a little bit to assert herself; her chest tones have a slightly woolly sound which at times got lost in the undergrowth of the orchestra’s string section, but that was only a problem in a few places.

The centerpiece of the performance, however, was a magnificent display by the WNO chorus. They were kept under a pretty tight rein for most of the time by Chorus Master Stephen Harris, who had them holding back enough in reserve that when they unleashed the full fortissimo the dramatic effect was truly thrilling. Little surprise that they got such warm applause at the end; I thought they were magnificent.

The one thing I wasn’t sure about before the concert started was whether and to what extent the folk at St David’s Hall would observe the tradition of standing during the Hallelujah Chorus. I’ve never been sure how widespread this practice was; it was definitely accepted (and indeed expected) way back when in the City Hall, Newcastle, but I fear many in the rest of the UK think of us Geordies as uncivilised rabble and for all I knew the posher parts of England might have abandoned this quaint practice decades ago.

Cardiff is actually a bit like Newcastle in some ways, but the tradition of music making is much stronger here in Wales. On the other hand -as one of my former colleagues from London days warned me when he heard I’d decided to move here – Cardiff is also a bit old-fashioned. I know what he meant, and I think he was right, but I don’t think it’s at all the worse for being so.

Anyway, I was delighted that, when the time came for the Hallelujah Chorus, the entire audience rose as one to its feet to hear a stunning rendition of this most majestic piece of music. It was King George II’s decision to stand in acknowledgement of Handel’s genius that initiated this ritual, and there’s a very special feeling knowing that you’re celebrating something that’s been celebrated the same way for over 250 years and is still something that’s completely exhilirating to listen to.


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7 Responses to “Messiah”

  1. Yeah, Handel’s “Messiah” is awesome!

  2. telescoper Says:

    Talking about strange traditions, it’s odd that Messiah is a Christmas favourite anyway. It was clearly meant to be performed at Easter – the first performance was in April 1742 – and only a small part deals with the nativity. Not that this matters much to me!

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Not as odd as celebrating the birth of Jesus in mid-winter, a time of year which there is considerable evidence against!

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    I recall a very nice performance of Handel’s Messiah given by the B.B.C. National Orchestra of Wales and its Chorus in St. David’s Hall close to 15 years ago. The piece ended triumphantly and the audience broke into loud applause. The applause eventually died out and, just as we made our made our way out of the building, there was a single, very loud, thunder clap.

    The tradition of the audience standing for the Hallelujah Chorus has often puzzled me. It is done in Cardiff and it is done in London, as I have experienced. But is it done more widely than just Britain? A former Nottingham colleague of Peter and myself performed Messiah with his choir in Copenhagen a year or two ago. I therefore asked him whether the audience stood for the Hallelujah Chorus in Denmark. He told me that the conductor gesticulated for the audience to stand immediately before the Chorus. So it is not just a British practice.

    • telescoper Says:

      Interesting to hear that standing is expected in Denmark, although strange that the conductor has to request it. The conductor last night made no gesture, but everyone stood up immediately the previous section had ended.

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Cardiff is actually a bit like Newcastle in some ways”

    Like it’s hard for English people from Manchester southward to understand the language…

    • telescoper Says:

      Possibly!

      But I think it’s more to do with their proximity to coal mining and heavy industry, their historically important ports and nearness to the sea, and that they’re both just a few miles away from wonderful countryside that most English people don’t know anything about.

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